Why confidence and 'Star Trek' matter to Twitter co-creator Biz Stone

The Washington PostJune 9, 2014 

As the Twitter creation myth goes, Biz Stone was the nice-guy idealist among the social media company's otherwise sparring co-founders.

Although he never served as chief executive, Stone helped guide the company from idea to initial public offering. He has chronicled his work at Twitter, as well as at Google and Xanga, in the book Things a Little Bird Told Me.

Stone talked about an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that influenced his early thoughts on leadership. He also discussed dropping out of college, confronting failure and keeping in mind some of Twitter's management blunders now that he is chief executive of Jelly Industries, a mobile application that, "uses photos, interactive maps, location, and most importantly, people to deliver answers to queries."

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What's your definition of leadership in 140 characters?

A: Leadership can be defined as good communication plus confidence without ego.

Q: And the longer version?

A: I'm being nerdy now: One of my favorite episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is when the captain and the doctor are stranded alone on this planet, and their brains are linked by some kind of alien device so they can read each other's thoughts. They're trying to get somewhere and the captain says, "We're going this way." And the doctor says, "You don't know which way to go, do you?" Because she can read his thoughts.

He explains to her that sometimes part of being a leader is just picking a way and being confident about it and going, because people want to be led. That episode rang really true to me. Sometimes you just have to lead, even if you don't have all the answers. In fact, you shouldn't have all the answers.

Q: What leadership lesson did you learn most from watching Twitter grow?

A: One of the keys to being a CEO is communication. In the early days of Twitter, we just assumed that since we were all sitting in the same room we were all on the same page, so we didn't really need to communicate that much. We were wrong. That was one reason Twitter's service was constantly breaking in the early days.

With this new company I've founded, Jelly, it's the first time I'm CEO. I realize that half the job of being a good leader is making sure everyone knows everything at all times that they need to know, because it's human nature to fear the unknown. And in the business world, fear translates to the assumption that something's going wrong. If you don't hear anything, you assume the worst.

Q: What experiences in your youth had an impact on your character today?

A: When I was 19 years old, I had this full scholarship for excellence in the arts to U-Mass., but on the side I got a job moving boxes at a publishing company. When the art department went out to lunch one day, I snuck onto the art director's machine and I designed a book jacket. I printed it out, matted it up for approval, and when the art director got back he wanted to know who had designed this cover.

I said, "Me." And he said, "The box kid?" He offered me a job, so I decided to drop out of college.

He was my early mentor. I grew up without a father, so this guy taught me a lot. He didn't just teach me how to design book jackets, and he didn't just teach me about graphic design. He taught me that creativity is a renewable resource. He taught me to take my ego out of the job of creating the right cover for the book, because there are infinite covers. There's not one right cover. If it doesn't work for sales, if it doesn't work for editorial, try again.

I also learned early on that opportunity can be manufactured. When I got to high school, I wanted to be on a sports team, but I hadn't played any sports as a kid. I found out that the school didn't offer lacrosse. So I went to the administration and said, if I can find enough other boys and a coach, can I start a lacrosse team?

So I founded this lacrosse team and we were good, and I became captain. The lesson I learned from it was to take a step back and realize that you can architect the circumstances, which then uniquely positions you to take the opportunity.

Q: What do you think about founder CEOs, when that works and when it doesn't?

A: Being a founder and CEO is the ideal situation, if the founder of the company is ready to take on that responsibility and is suited to it. That's not always the case. Some founders are people who are very creative and want to pop from one project to the next. Also, a lot of the founders these days are kids. And the best way for them to grow into that CEO role is either with time or by surrounding themselves with people who can really educate them.

Q: What made the difference, that this time you wanted to be CEO?

A: I've matured. I've been on the front lines for so many years that I've been able to soak up the best qualities I've seen in CEOs. I tend to have a habit of picking up traits that I like.

I'm a father now, and I think that makes a big difference. There's a sense of responsibility that has come with that. Also, the thing that brings me the most joy in life is helping other people, and this company is a platform for people helping other people — so it's a productization of my own personality.

Q: You've had the rare vantage point of seeing Twitter go from infancy through IPO and beyond. What management challenges have you seen in scaling up?

A: So many. The company is almost like this organism that needs who it needs when it needs them, just as a child needs different types of parenting as it grows older.

You start out really small. Then, as the company grows, someone else starts doing your job. Some people get afraid and think, 'Am I becoming obsolete?' The answer is: No, you're being asked to step up a level and take on a bigger piece of the pie. That rapid growth doesn't work for some people, though, because they feel like they're being pushed out when actually they're just being asked to take on more responsibility. It's a challenge to communicate that effectively.

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